Souls and Ceremonies for Saving Them

 by You-Bin Chen

Excerpted from "A Discussion of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua's Contribution to Buddhism" by You-Bin Chen - Vajra Bodhi Sea Monthly Journal from June, 1966 to October, 1997.

Given current affluence in certain Buddhist countries, everyone is into  "money" and this has led to the business of saving souls-such things as "making offerings to unborn souls." The Master's comments regarding this issue are:

 "You can't call that 'making offerings' because they are not the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). If you call that 'making offerings' then you have fallen into deviant views. It should be called 'saving.' But their enmity is extremely deep and so they are difficult to save, because the debt is one of having had their lives snatched away and so it has to be paid back with having one's own life snatched away in return. But if one encounters a true cultivator who is not 'greedy for wealth' then there's a 'chance' to save them.

 "The question of abortion is an extremely serious one. One of the biggest reasons there are so many doubts and difficulties and so many different kinds of diseases is because of abortions.  Stop and think about it: Before the life-form even had a chance to come out into the world it became a resentful ghost. Tell me, with so many small ghosts around who are bent on taking life because their own was taken, how can we ever expect humankind to be at peace?  These small ghosts must find someone who practices the Way and is not 'greedy for wealth' before they can be saved."

 In this passage the Master brings up how "their enmity is extremely deep." that they are difficult to save, and that the cultivator must "not be greedy for wealth" before there's a "chance" to save them. So please don't be superstitious, everyone, and think that using "money" to create lots of merit and virtue will "take care of everything"  and get involved in "saving souls."  If you do, then that is a case of failing to understand the essentials of cause and effect.  Besides which, the Buddhist Sutras repeatedly say that one should not kill or have abortions. For instance, in The Buddha Speaks the Dharani Sutra of Long Life and the Protection of Pure Youths there is a passage:  "There are Five things in the world that are difficult to erase, even through repentance and reform. What are the five?

 1) Killing one's father. 2) killing one's mother; 3) killing an unborn child; 4) shedding the Buddhas' blood; and 5) breaking up the harmony of the Sangha. If one creates this evil karma, the offenses are hard to eradicate." In The Buddha Talks About Different Karmic Retributions Sutra there's a passage that says:  "There are ten kinds of karma that will cause beings to receive the retribution of a short lifespan.  1) Personally committing acts of killing; 2) exhorting others to commit acts of killing...?) destroying an unborn child (that means personally having abortions); 8) telling others to destroy an unborn child (that means advising someone else to have an abortion)...These ten deeds bring the retribution of a short lifespan." Also in The Buddha Explains the Five Upasaka Precepts Marks he said:  "If one deliberately has an abortion and the fetus dies, one commits 'an offense that cannot be repented of.'"

True, the Master also did ceremonies to cross over souls, but the Master said quite humbly:

"Throughout my entire life I have never been willing to participate in 'professionally  reciting Sutras and  doing  repentances,' 'Flaming Mouth Ceremonies.' and 'Water and Land Ceremonies' because I simply don't have the virtuous conduct required.  My Way is insufficient to move people; my virtue is not enough to teach people. I haven't even successfully saved myself yet, how can I go about saving dead souls? I haven't got that much gall!"

But now, not only are there "centers for saving souls" everywhere you go, there's also a fixed "price."  Even the laity have taken up this "business." Those who make a living as professional "savers of souls" are really the freeloaders of a mishmash of Buddhism and externalism.

The Master said: "Now in the Dharma Ending Age, the laity casually accept people's offerings [I "laity" is literally "those in white (secular) clothes."].  Left-home people casually charge money (or reciting Sutras for people and performing ceremonies to save souls-while wearing the Buddha's robes and eating the Buddha's food.  Laypeople casually agree lo save souls - Well, who's going to save them? Not to mention laypeople, left-home people who charge money for professionally reciting Sutras and doing repentances, or for crossing over dead souls, also have a big problem."

It's obvious in the Dharma  Ending Age that for laity to be crossing over dead souls is something that's absolutely not in accord with Dharma. That's because the amount of merit and virtue derived from cultivating as a layperson is definitely limited. It cannot compare with the strength of pure cultivators who are left home. It is appropriate for the laity to protect and support the Triple jewel and lo make offerings to the Triple Jewel. It is not appropriate for them to be leading ceremonies to cross over dead souls. They haven't even crossed themselves beyond birth and death, how can they save others?

When it comes to really being able to save others, the only way it will work is to start with oneself and then to rely on the aid of the Triple Jewel and the virtue of one's teacher. The Master said:

 "Don't get angry, don't fight, don't be greedy, don't seek, don't be selfish, don't pursue self-benefit and don't lie. Be a good person. Don't do anything evil and do all kinds of good deeds. In that way your parents and ancestors will naturally be saved."

From this we can see that if we work hard at cultivation, don't get angry, and are good people, then quite naturally we will acquire infinite merit and virtue. And from that merit and virtue, the dead souls will, of course, attain benefit and be liberated. In the "Chapter on Doubts and Questions" of the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra there's a passage that says:

"Continuity of thought is merit and the mind practicing equality and directness is virtue. Self-cultivation of one's nature is merit, and self-cultivation of the body is virtue. Good Knowing Advisors!  Merit and virtue should be seen within one's own nature, not sought through giving and making offerings." Nor is it the case that you must spend some money or recite some Sutras in order to get benefit. It's said, "I vow to save the living beings of my own nature." Saving oneself is simultaneously saving others; saving others is simultaneously saving oneself. There's no distinction of before and after. In the "Chapter on Doubt and Questions" of the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra there's another passage that says: "The living beings in our minds are deviant, confused thoughts, insane thoughts, and treacherous thoughts. All such thoughts are living beings and they must all be crossed over within our own nature. That is the real meaning of saving."

Once someone asked how many times one would have to say the Rebirth Mantra in order to be effective in crossing over the tens of thousands of lives one had taken in the past. The Master's answer was:

"If you cut off lust, then a tremendous response can be achieved by reciting it once. If you haven't cut off lust, then reciting it tens of thousands of times won't be effective."

"Cutting off lust" means nothing other than cutting off our afflictions, getting rid of our ignorance, casting out our sexual desire and emotional love, and putting a stop to our bad temper. If we can cut off our sexual desire and the greed in our minds, then we will be using a pure mind to recite mantras and sutras and of course there will be an efficacious response.

In the past, Buddhism in China always gave people the mistaken impression that it was a religion that specialized in crossing over dead souls and so the intelligentsia looked down on and tried to get rid of Buddhism. Two years prior to the Master's Nirvana, he cried out in despair:

"Chinese Buddhism's Water Lands, Flaming Mouths, and other ceremonies and their saving of souls have become the "status quo" in Chinese Buddhism. They never stop to think that if they keep it up, they are going to be doing nothing but handing out free meals to unemployed vagrants under the guise of Buddhism. What a terrible shame! All they know how to do is make money saving souls. Actually, in order to save souls, you must have a foundation in virtuous conduct. Then, not to speak of reciting mantras or reciting sutras, the single sentence "you can go to rebirth" is sufficient for a soul to be able to gain rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. For those of you who lack any virtue in the Way, who don't have any cultivation, I ask you, what's your basis for being able to save souls? What you are actually doing is running up a debt with the donor. Besides that, you are destroying the basic system of Buddhism."

Right! It's a real shame that they don't open up the Tripitaka [Buddhist Canon] with its Twelve Divisions - a precious treasury of infinite wisdom - and learn to teach from it instead of applying all their effort to superfluous things.

There's also the problem found in Buddhism of "burning paper money." Actually the custom of burning paper money began in the Han dynasty according to Wong Yu, a Tang dynasty scholar who says: "From the Han on, money was sacrificed at funerals. Later generations used paper money in ceremonies for ghosts." The meaning is that the corrupt practice of burning money at funerals became a custom. That's because in China, from of old to now, everyone thinks that "people die and become ghosts" and that probably in the path of ghosts they will need some cash. But nowadays it's turned into the burning of paper money being an essential item used in the saving of souls.

The Master point out:

"Once the money is burned it becomes ashes. Once it's ashes, how do I know whether it still has any value? If you say that burning it has value, well. Westerns don't bum paper money, but you'd be hard-put to say they all become poverty-stricken ghosts who are beggars!  It's said 'There aren't any poor ghosts in the West, nor any rich spirits in the East.'" "Ghosts consume the 'nature' of things; they don't need real money or actual edible items.  If you have some money, you can use it to do some merit and virtue and transfer the merit to the departed ghost. But people who spend it on burning paper cars, paper airplanes, paper mansions and the like are terribly confused. It's likely that using fire to burn the money has some connection with the religion that worships Fire (Brahman), which claims that the Fire spirits can somehow take the burned things and give them to the ghosts and spirits. In the Indian religion, kuverna agni (a fire spirit) is credited with this ability.  In general, it would be best to cut out these customs in Buddhism lest it becomes a "booming business."


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